Phonathon callers attempt to raise $425,000

Dave Shinall

Louisville sophomore Kristen Harrison makes about 700 calls in three nights each week.

She isn’t picking up the phone to chat with friends. Instead, she’s dialing for dollars.

“I make between 200 and 250 calls a night,” she said.

Most are long-distance.

Harrison and 34 other Alumni Relations Phonathon callers hope to talk most of Western’s nearly 70,000 alumni into giving their alma mater a total of $425,000 by the end of the school year.

Last year, phonathon workers raised $334,000.

This semester, callers have raised $243,400 and phoned more than 16,000 alumni between Sundays and Thursdays from 5:30 to 9 p.m.

They phone from 16 computerized calling stations in Academic Complex Room 101.

Computers do the dialing, but all that calling can still be frustrating at times.

“We get a lot of answering machines, busy signals and disconnected numbers,” Harrison said.

Callers start earning $5.50 an hour and get 50-cent raises each year they return to help with the alumni phonathon, but rapid caller burnout causes high turnover.

“We do have a lot of people that’ll quit in the first couple of weeks,” Phonathon Coordinator Amanda Trabue said. “They just don’t enjoy sitting on the phone, talking over and over and over for three hours.”

Some stick with it for years, though.

“A lot of these kids really love Western, and they really love talking to people about it,” Trabue said.

Trabue began calling as a freshman. She stayed with it through graduation and now heads the phonathon.

Her job and other phonathon callers’ job has recently become even more substantial for Western. State funding cuts to the university have made phonathon and alumni giving more important than ever.

Alumni gifts of $1 to $99 are callers’ targets as they try to get former Hilltoppers to make small contributions in order to win big corporate donations and boost Western’s rating.

“Corporations look at alumni participation,” Trabue said.

So does U.S. News and World Report in its annual ranking of top colleges and universities, she said.

“We talk to alumni about things going on at the university, ask them if they have any questions and ultimately solicit them for a donation,” Trabue said.

Nightly totals vary.

“We’ve had nights from $2,000, when we’re calling our donors that have never given to us before, up into $30,000, when we’re calling our people that have given consecutively over several years,” Trabue said.

Some nights, a caller strikes paydirt.

“The biggest donation that we’ve gotten was probably last year,” Trabue said. “We got an $11,000 donation from a lady that has a scholarship here at Western. And she gave her annual gift to us at phonathon.”

Callers who bring in big money earn cash bonuses, gift certificates and merchandise donated by local businesses.

Plus, callers eat free.

“Aramark has donated GrilleWorks at least twice a week this year,” Trabue said. “And, then, our other nights are filled by pizza vendors. We’ve even had Outback and Rafferty’s donate gift certificates and appetizers.”

Owensboro sophomore Misty Lindsey likes phonathon pay and benefits.

“All the other jobs on campus don’t pay as much,” she said. “You don’t have to work weekends. You get off at nine every night. And then, they feed you, too.”

The biggest contribution Lindsey has netted is $5,000, but she gets excited over the little gifts, too.

“A lot of our alumni don’t realize they can give small amounts like $5,” she said.

Elizabethtown senior Josh Hawkins’ biggest donation is $10,000.

“What keeps me going is you know that there’s always people that are going to be happy to talk to you and be happy to give you their money,” he said.

Reach Dave Shinall at [email protected]